Improving Teacher Training Efforts Inside or Outside the Norm?

A few weeks ago on Twitter (eduflack, for those looking to follow), I posed what I thought was an interesting question.  Does reform and improvement of our teacher preparation programs need to be led inside or outside the norm?  Or in simpler terms, can we look to our schools of education to make the necessary changes, or does it require new thinking from alternative certification programs and innovation-minded groups or individuals to lead the sort of sea change we need to boost the quality and outcomes of all teachers in the classroom?

The question led to my call for a Flexner-style Commission to study the current state of teacher education.  The premise is simple.  We need someone to go in and evaluate the good, the bad, and the downright ugly when it comes to teacher preparation.  What are best practices?  How is what’s proven effective making its way into the classroom?  Who is doing it right?  Who is doing it wrong?  What voices will lead the transformation moving forward, and what calls will try to defend a status quo that is clearly broken.
That latter point is one that bears repeating.  There are real problems in the across-the-board quality of teacher preparation in the United States.  Some alternative routes are mom-and-pop shops that do a quick dash and dump into the school districts with nary a concern for the coursework or clinical training necessary to prepare a student for the challenges of leading a classroom.  Some online programs seek to simply offer quick and cheap degrees to meet district staffing needs, with little concern for the quality of the instruction or the real-life preparedness of the students they only meet virtually and through their bank accounts.  Too many traditional teacher ed programs have watered down their programs to serve the lowest common denominator, seeking to simply provide warm bodies to hard-to-staff schools that have lost sight of much the pedagogical training and ongoing support aspiring and new teachers need to adjust to life in a classroom.  And programs on both sides of the fence simply are putting underprepared educators in the most challenging of classrooms, figuring any teacher, no matter how poorly prepared, is better than no teacher at all.
Clearly, the current model is broken, or at least in need of some serious triage.  At the same time, we have a growing body of evidence regarding the instruction, training, support, and ongoing professional development that teacher educators should impart on the next generation of the molders of student minds.
Recently, Mathematica completed an evaluation on alternative teacher pathways for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).  The study found that new teachers from alternative routes were essentially no worse that teachers from traditional routes, at least in those schools they studied (a finding that the alt cert community, and likely IES, was hoping for).  The study itself went over like a lead balloon, with few noticing it or reporting on it.  Rightfully so.  It should not be news that Eduflack has some major issues with the methodology Mathematica used to reach its conclusions and with the narrow eye with which they looked at the results.  
A recent research critique completed by NYU’s Sean Corcoran and Columbia’s Jennifer Jennings pulls back the curtain on all that was wrong with the Mathematica approach, methodology, and interpretation of the results.  Their full tome can be found at EPIC (University of Colorado, Boulder) and EPRU’s (Arizona State University) joint website at:  
Corcoran and Jennings’ work echoes similar critiques that have already been posted by a range of folks, including the Center for Teacher Quality’s Barnett Berry on his blog —  
What did they find?
* None of the teacher studied had the teacher prep generally required of new teachers nationally (because Mathematica only looked at a handful of hard-to-staff schools that would gladly take any warm or lukewarm body willing to sit at the big desk.
* There is a clear difference in the impact of a teacher from a high-coursework prep program and a low-coursework prep program.  Even among alt cert providers themselves, the high courseworkers were most able to do the job.
* Teachers coming from low-coursework alternative programs actually decreased study achievement.  Yes, the data showed that kids in the classroom of ill-trained, ill-prepared teachers actually saw their student performance decline, while teachers from traditional routes either held the line or posted some very, very, very modest gains.
So what do we do with all of this information?  How do we use it to build a better teacher education mousetrap?  Some of the answers can be found with Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond, who looked at both the Mathematica research and data on effective teacher prep in places like North Carolina and New York City to help identify the necessary qualities of effective teacher training programs.  Her research can be found here:  
Darling-Hammond’s work offers the clearest view on how the confluence of research on teacher preparation can be moved into policy that aligns with current federal priorities to more effectively train, support, demand, and reward good teaching in the schools.  It reminds us of the checklist that should go into evaluating teacher prep programs.  Among her toplines:
* Prospective teachers must learn specific practices and apply them in clinical experiences;
* Prospects need sufficient coursework in content areas (such as math and reading) and the methods of teaching them (so both the content and the pedagogy); and
* Teachers-in-training need to be well-aware of the local district curriculum and how their pre-service education prepares them to meet expectations and achieve expected outcomes;
We also know that those prospects most like to succeed in the classroom are certified in the specific areas they teach, have higher-than-average scores on the teacher licensing test, and graduate from a competitive college.
(Full disclosure, Eduflack works with the good folks at EPIC, including on the announcement of the Corcoran/Jennings piece and has counseled Darling-Hammond, off and on, for a decade now.  Yes, fans, you’ve heard that right, this champion of evidence base and the need for reform has worked with LDH since her days as head of NCTAF.  And despite the urban legend, she is far more of the reformer and innovator than most in the field and that virtually anyone gives her credit for, if you can stand my brief editorial.)
None of this is rocket science.  But delivering it seems to be the challenge, particularly in our urban centers where we are hungry for anyone, and I mean just about anyone, to lead a classroom in an underperforming, hard-to-staff classroom.
What do we do with all of this?  First, the Highly Qualified Teacher provisions in NCLB are correct.  Teachers should be trained in the content matter they are to teach and need to be certified in that subject matter.  There is no replacement for several years of rich, content-based coursework in the subject matter itself.  Those advocates for including Effective in the HQT provisions (including Eduflack) are right as well.  We need
to measure a teacher, in part, by how effective they are.  And the straightest path to measuring that effectiveness is student performance (even the Mathematica study tells us that).  And then there is that which we know instinctually — effective teachers require clinical training and time in the classroom before they are tossed in the deep end.  They need mentors and in-school supports that can help them work through the problems and apply their training to real classrooms.  And they need ongoing, content-based, embedded professional development for the rest of their careers, so they are continually improving an constantly adapting to the changing challenges and opportunities of the modern day classroom and student.
It is just pure common sense.  But as we know from far too many life experiences, some folks just don’t have (or use) the common sense they are born with.  Do our ed schools, in the collective sense, need improvement?  You betcha.  Are alternative pathways the solution for struggling schools?  No, there is no data to make that leap.  Do we know what it takes to train an effective teacher?  Of course we do.  Are we applying it universally in our teacher preparation programs, traditional or alternative?  Not even close.
At some point, the war between traditional and alt cert needs to come to an end.  There will always be a need and a demand for niche programs that can fill specific needs in certain schools or communities.  That’s where good alt cert programs can play their part.  But if we are going to truly reform and improve the quality and results of public education in the United States, change, at scale, can only begin with our schools of education.  We need to do this across the board, ensuring that the new teachers going into our urban centers and so-called dropout factories receive the same level of high-quality content and pedagogical learning and training as those entering our well-funded suburban K-12 schools.  Good teacher training is good teacher training.  Period.  We shouldn’t have different levels, particularly when it comes to those poor and minority students with whom we are trying to close the achievement gap.  
“Good enough for …” should never be a phrase uttered when identifying and hiring teachers in hard-to-staff schools.  Every student deserves the best prepared, the best trained, and the best equipped teachers.  The last thing they need is to settle for a teacher deemed “good enough” for their struggling school or declining community.  That sort of bigotry has gotten us into the achievement problems we still can’t pull out of.

309 thoughts on “Improving Teacher Training Efforts Inside or Outside the Norm?

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